A man playing drums during a funeral procession in Ghana

On a Return Visit to Ghana, I Rediscovered the Music My Father Loved

After many years away, returning to Ghana allowed me to reconnect with the rhythms of my ancestors—and the lessons my father taught me.

In my early thirties, living in New York, I fell in love with a professional jazz musician named Seth. A year into our relationship, I invited him to travel to Ghana with me to visit my grandmother and three aunties. Seth was excited to meet them, as well as to study the rhythms of the Ashanti tribe to which my father's family belongs. Those rhythms are among the roots of jazz.

We flew in to Accra and took a bus to Kumasi, the colorful capital of the Ashanti region. Despite Kumasi's busy commercial areas, including one of the biggest open-air markets in West Africa, we could still see fragments of the forest that, not too long ago, covered the entire area.

Seth and I spent several afternoons at the sprawling Kumasi Centre for National Culture, home to a library, museum, restaurant, concert venue, and shops selling art and textiles. There, Seth took drumming lessons. On a bench in an open courtyard, I watched children chase chickens and listened to the teacher explain that, in Ashanti ensembles, each drum part is considered a voice. These voices circle each other in continuous patterns, each one interlocking with the steady rhythm of a handheld bell.

Dancers at the Kumasi Center in Ghana
Dancers performing at Ghana’s Kumasi Centre for National Culture in 2019. Courtesy of Nadia Owusu

During Seth's final lesson, his teacher gathered an ensemble and Seth played one of the parts. Afterward, Seth told me that the only way to learn Ashanti music is to learn it in the body: "If you try to intellectualize it, you'll get lost. You have to feel it."

This reminded me of a conversation I once had with my father. He was born and raised in Kumasi, and when I was seven years old he took me to a funeral there to hear traditional Ashanti music. Although we didn't know the man who had died, we weren't crashing, either. In Ghana, funerals are festive community affairs—celebrations of life. Troupes of musicians and dancers are hired to send the souls of the deceased off into the world of their ancestors.

"I was not prepared for the effect those rhythms in their purest forms, performed by a percussion and vocal ensemble, would have on me."

At the time, we lived in Rome, where my father worked as a UN diplomat; I grew up moving back and forth between Europe and other countries in Africa—Tanzania, Ethiopia, Uganda. I loved my hopscotched upbringing, but I also longed to belong. One common thread of my heritage was listening to my father's cassettes of highlife, a musical genre that combines ancient Ashanti rhythms with the rhythms of Ghana's other tribes, along with Western influences and instrumentation.

But I was not prepared for the effect those rhythms in their purest forms, performed by a percussion and vocal ensemble, would have on me. At the funeral in Kumasi, I felt them in my gut. The beat of my heart attuned to the drums, as though the music was inside me as well as all around me. Still a young child, I tried to describe the feeling to my father. As I struggled with words, he smiled, delighted. "These rhythms," he said, "are in your blood. I'll teach you their meanings."

Writer Nadia Owusu, in Ghana
The author in Ghana in 2019. Courtesy of Nadia Owusu

My father did teach me about Ghanaian music. He told me that there are rhythms to mark every occasion. Every time we visited Kumasi, he took me to festivals and ceremonies. He died when I was 13, and for a long time, I didn't go to Ghana. For years, I treasured his words about the music being in my blood, because I often felt disconnected from my Ghanaian culture, even more so after I lost him.

Related: For Black Americans, a Heritage Trip to West Africa Can Be Life-changing

But on that return trip with Seth 23 years later, I felt once again the power of the music. One evening, under a setting sun, we watched a performance of the cultural center's troupe. At one point, the dancers took us by the hand and showed us how to move our hips and gesture with our hands. At first, I felt awkward, but then I let go, allowing my body to take over.

"On that return trip with Seth 23 years later, I felt once again the power of the music."

Later we went to Bonwire, a nearby town, for the annual harvest festival that is also a celebration of kente cloth, the Ashanti textile recognized all over the world. People showed up in their most vibrant kente robes. Chiefs from towns and villages across the Ashanti region—wrists and ankles laden with gold jewelry—were carried around the open field on palanquins to cheers and ululations from the crowd. Each procession was accompanied by a drum and dance ensemble.

"I could listen to this forever," I told Seth, and he agreed.

I already loved Seth when we traveled to Ghana for the first time, but on that trip, I fell for him more deeply. I loved him for bringing me back to the rhythms in my blood. I loved him for wanting to know them in his body, too. We've returned to Ghana three more times, and each time, we've sought to deepen our knowledge of the country's music. We have visited Koo Nimo, a highlife legend, in his office at Kwame Nkrumah University, where he told us stories of being a musician in the court of the Asantehene, the king of the Ashanti. At home in New York, we listen to highlife and dance in our kitchen while we cook.

This year, Seth and I were married at a courthouse in New York. As soon as we can, we will have a wedding in Ghana. We will ask our musician friends there to play the marriage rhythms for us, and we will dance. Our hearts will attune to each other, and to the drums.

A version of this story first appeared in the August 2021 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline A Familiar Beat.

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